Skip Navigation

Supporting Students at a Distance: A Discussion with Two Rural School Psychologists on Challenges and Opportunities During the COVID-19 Pandemic

December 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered school buildings in March 2020, school psychologists, along with many other student services providers, quickly shifted their practices to work in an almost entirely virtual environment. Supporting the mental health needs of students during these challenging times continues to be a top priority for national, state, and local education leaders. The National Association of School Psychologists, for instance, has produced research-backed resources that address delivering special education services, responding to mental health and other crises, supporting families and educators, and returning to school during the pandemic. Even with this helpful guidance, many school psychologists are still grappling with the fallout of halting in-person counseling sessions and the challenges of building and maintaining relationships with students virtually.

During the early weeks of the pandemic, REL West staff spoke with school psychologists in two rural school districts to learn about how they adapted their services in the absence of in-person interactions. We checked back in with them again during the first few weeks of the 2020/21 school year. Eron McLaughlin works with students and families in four school districts through the Centennial Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), an agency serving rural areas of northern Colorado. Rita Huerta works primarily at Parlier Junior High School and is also part of the student support services team at Parlier Unified School District, a rural district in California’s Central Valley. Both provide direct support to students and consult with teachers, families, and other school staff to promote positive behavior and mental health.

The Role of School Psychologists

A school psychologist typically works with special education practitioners to support and conduct assessments for individualized education programs (IEPs), provides one-on-one counseling to students demonstrating behavior challenges that interfere with learning, and meets with parents to help them understand and improve their children’s behavioral and developmental outcomes.

As rural practitioners, Huerta and McLaughlin’s roles differ from those of school psychologists in more populated school districts, and also from each other. In Huerta’s case, she does not focus exclusively on special education, instead serving the general education population. McLaughlin’s role is more traditional in that he works primarily with students with IEPs. However, the remoteness of the seven schools he serves necessitates—when school buildings are open—travel of up to an hour between them. He also serves a wider age range of students than Huerta and most other school psychologists, from preK through post-high school transition programs, which are offered up to age 21.

Challenges of Substituting Screens for In-Person Interactions

Before school closures, McLaughlin and Huerta conducted their work entirely in person. When school buildings closed in spring 2020, this was no longer feasible. The switch to communicating with students virtually came with a number of challenges.

“What [students] are doing says a lot more than what they are saying,” said Huerta, noting the importance of non-verbal communication, which is largely absent over the phone and can be harder to see on video calls.

“Many students are left unsupervised, [while also] supervising their younger siblings. Some are really stepping up. Others feel stressed because they are expected to do more than before.” – Rita Huerta, School Psychologist, Parlier Unified School District

Although some students felt comfortable texting and participating in video-counseling sessions, both Huerta and McLaughlin shared concerns that they were missing out on knowing for sure how their students were faring. “It’s like a black box,” said McLaughlin. “Even the kids that I’m talking with regularly, things stay more surface level.” McLaughlin cited several barriers to moving beyond that surface level, including concerns over confidentiality – finding private spaces to hold conversations or not trusting the security of video conferencing – and the general lack of intimacy when discussing personal circumstances or feelings through a screen. Huerta noted that she was often supporting students with in-the-moment technology needs, such as learning how to connect to virtual classrooms or check email. She said that some students were so overwhelmed from those technology struggles that they would then “shut down” or withdraw from contact altogether.

Both Huerta and McLaughlin observed a drop in attendance for regular counseling sessions. They worried that, with all of these barriers to in-depth connections, students were simply not receiving the support they needed to protect their mental health and well-being.

Shifting Caseloads and Approaches

In addition to reduced demand for regular counseling sessions, McLaughlin noted that in-person assessments for psychological services were postponed, and new student counseling referrals had mostly stopped as school buildings remained closed. His districts had not yet begun to allow virtual assessments, and he guessed that new referrals were a low priority for teachers and school staff. Optimistically, McLaughlin speculated that for some students, freedom from the social and classroom pressures of in-person schooling might have temporarily reduced the need for supportive services.

Both McLaughlin and Huerta also noted that their work had shifted from being proactive and preventative to being reactive, often dealing with the aftermath of a problem. Before the pandemic, they’d typically been able to anticipate students’ needs or intervene before a situation reached a boiling point. Huerta in particular was missing opportunities to check in casually with students and colleagues, as that was often when she would find out about issues that might be addressed proactively.

Finding Opportunities

The shift to working virtually came with some benefits. For example, McLaughlin found that with travel time no longer part of his days, he was more frequently able to attend virtual cross-departmental team meetings and connect with colleagues to coordinate services. In fact, McLaughlin was conversing with some peers more that he had prior to the pandemic. “I’m chatting with them every day, and we’re problem-solving together,” he observed.

Huerta also saw another silver lining. She observed that for some students, the more spontaneous and informal ability to get in touch with her via text—versus having to meet face-to-face in an office—has had positive results. For example, she described one student who had not felt comfortable with self-disclosure during in-person sessions before school buildings closed. But through text, the student began to share about themself and accepted Huerta’s offers of support. For students like this, “talking may not be their strength, but that’s not to say communicating isn’t.”

McLaughlin and Huerta recognized that some of these new ways of connecting with colleagues and students might be good to continue even when students and staff return to school buildings.

Starting the 2020/21 School Year

REL West staff checked back in with McLaughlin and Huerta in October, about one month into the new school year. McLaughlin’s largest district is back to school in person, with options for distance learning and remote special education services. As he expected, there is a “scramble” to conduct the in-person assessments that stalled in the spring and to identify and monitor students who fell behind during distance learning. That being said, he reflected that “students have been resilient,” and his overall caseload has not increased by much.

“Students have been resilient. So far, I haven’t noticed an increased need for services, although we are still looking at how students are currently performing and trying to identify the students who regressed the most.” – Eron McLaughlin, School Psychologist, Centennial BOCES

Huerta’s school district is still conducting classes entirely virtually, with limited in-person options for testing, counseling, and specialized instruction for special education students. At this time, she is working with school and district staff to build capacity to teach core social and emotional competencies that students can use in the virtual environment and when they return to school in person. She’s also working across the district to support school staff in using the same social and emotional skillsets for professional and personal growth.

The past several months have been an exercise in staying nimble, adapting when possible, and preparing for many possible scenarios for the return to in-person learning. Although both Huerta and McLaughlin say they’ve learned a lot during the pandemic—and, in fact, that they may continue to use some of the virtual tools they’ve adopted during this period—both agree that their students will be better served when they can meet and connect in person.

Related Resources from REL West and Other Sources

This blog is part of our series on how student support providers are adapting their services in light of school building closures and social distancing measures. Read the first blog in this series on Reaching, Teaching, and Empowering Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences funds a network of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs). Each REL serves a designated region of the country and works with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs have collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic. To access these resources, visit https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/projects/covid-19.

This blog was prepared for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012 by Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West at WestEd. The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.